Silent Night The Christmas Truce of 1914

The Christmas Truce
Fanciful illustration of the Christmas Truce with British and German soldiers exchanging gifts. (National World War I Museum and Memorial)

“War is not sustainable when you come to know your enemy as a person.”

— Opera librettist and Pulitzer Prize winner for music Mark Campbell

The following is based on actual recorded history (as told by veterans).

On Christmas Eve 1914, along the four-hundred-mile Western Front of World War I, a famous ceasefire took place, as enemy soldiers spontaneously emerged from their trenches, arms laid aside, to celebrate Christ’s birth together. They sang carols, exchanged gifts (jams and candies, cigarettes, newspapers), kicked around a soccer ball, and shared photos of loved ones. They also buried each other’s dead and prayed communally over the bodies, led by chaplains. Some even exchanged home addresses and promised to visit after the war.

It began with an opera singer who had been sent to the front by the German Crown Prince Wilhelm to entertain the nation’s troops. Sitting in a trench, he began to sing “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night). Having an international reputation, his voice was recognized by a Frenchman across the way, who started cheering. The Scottish, stationed downfield, heard the distant song and started playing an accompaniment on bagpipes. Throughout the song, the German became more engaged, aware that he had a listening audience across the void. After the song, all three sides applauded, giving the opera singer the courage to step out of his trench and into No Man’s Land, singing “Adeste Fideles” (O Come, All Ye Faithful) in Latin, the universal language of the church.

The peace was short lived. By New Year, hostilities had resumed in most places. The Christmas truce faded like a dream, and the war claimed more than 16 million lives.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on the 100th anniversary of the Christmas Truce of 1914 on Last year, 2018, marked a hundred years since the end of World War I and two hundred years since the composition of the carol “Silent Night.”